Though much of its industry has left and with it a large part of its population, and although most of the stores in its prime commercial district are also long gone, the city of Washington is abundantly wealthy in one category: history.
It is history that will be celebrated this weekend with the Whiskey Rebellion Festival, which gets under way today with the Main Street Farmers’ Market and a free concert by the Washington Symphony Orchestra in the main tent next to the market at 8 p.m.
The festival runs through Saturday and is followed Sunday by the annual car show on Main Street. Some of our readers may wonder what the festival is all about, and others – particularly those new to the area – may not be familiar with the Whiskey Rebellion itself and its importance in our nation’s history. The website www.whiskeyrebellionfestival.com explains everything, but what follows is a brief summary for those who prefer information on old-fashioned paper.
The Whiskey Rebellion was the first challenge to the authority of the new federal government. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton needed to find a steady source of revenue in order to pay off the national debt and the pensions to Revolutionary War veterans and their widows. With duties on imported goods already painfully high, he proposed an excise tax on whiskey produced in the United States, and Congress instituted the levy in 1791.
Farmers here sold their grain in the form of whiskey, which was much easier to transport back east, and the excise tax was hugely unpopular. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, protesters used violence and intimidation to prevent federal officials from collecting the tax. In one instance, a tax collector was tarred and feathered, a type of assault that was often fatal.
President George Washington responded by sending in 13,000 troops. The rebels dispersed, and leader David Bradford hightailed it to what is now Louisiana. The episode demonstrated the federal government had the authority to levy taxes and the power to enforce the law.
For many years, the rebellion was marked annually by a re-enactment of an event that never really happened: Bradford’s daring leap from a window of the Bradford House onto his horse to escape from federal troops. A biannual symposium celebrates the Whiskey Rebellion in a more scholarly fashion.
The current festival took root during Washington’s bicentennial celebration in 2010. The Whiskey Rebellion Festival went off on its own the following summer and has since celebrated history in July with historical demonstrations, re-enactments, music, food, art, a parade and children’s activities – all of it, including bus transportation to exhibits at Washington Park, free of charge.
After tonight’s Washington Symphony concert, activities resume Friday evening with Brews, Blues and BBQ, with live music featuring blues artist Barbara Blue as the headliner. Saturday’s events begin at 10 a.m. with the parade on Main Street. Tours will be offered throughout the day at the county courthouse, the David Bradford House and the LeMoyne House, which hosts this year’s Art and Artisans Show in the house and in Madeleine’s Garden. Live music will be performed continuously at three locations throughout the day, and re-enactors will be entertaining crowds downtown and at Washington Park throughout Saturday.
The Felice Brothers are the main musical act Saturday night, followed by a fireworks display.
A large group of volunteers has been hard at work since last August planning this year’s festival, and its efforts are a fine example of civic pride. We urge all of our readers to share that pride, to join in the fun and learn a little more about this place where we live and work and how it came to be.